Nearly a week of pro-democratic protests led by students in Iran have caught the eye of the Bush administration and Congress. But one question now being asked is whether the United States can or should do anything to encourage political reform in a country where many people say they would like closer ties to the west, but whose rulers still view the United States as an enemy. The issue is quickly becoming a new focus of U.S. foreign policy.
Students protesting in Iran are demanding an end to the restrictions that nearly a quarter century of Islamic rule have imposed on many forms of expression, both political and otherwise. In a country where a majority of the population is now under age 30, students and observers say many of the middle class who silently support them are frustrated with the slow pace of reform and want more freedom to make their own decisions on everything from what they can wear, to what they read and listen to.
The demonstrations have caught the eye of President Bush, who has all but encouraged them against a government he has labeled part of an axis of evil. "This is the beginnings of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran which I think is positive," he said.
Members of Congress want to encourage reform in Iran as well. Legislation has been introduced that would provide money to expand pro-democracy broadcasting to the country and further support forces for change there.
But both inside Iran and here in the United States, there is concern that any action viewed as American meddling in Iranian politics could backfire. It's a charge the Iranian government is already making in connection with President Bush's statements supportive of Tehran's student protests, some of which have led to violent clashes with police and pro-government vigilantes.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar is among those who support reform, but with caution. "The democratic process of Iran through the students and the young people taking charge, how that comes about, I don't know," he said. "But I think it has to be an Iranian process, which we can assist."
Iranians may want more freedom but not if that means the price is American involvement, says Amin Sabooni, executive editor of Tehran's English language "Iran Daily".
"We want to settle our own issues. We want to settle our own problems. We think we are very mature, we know our problems and we must and we should be able to solve it," he said.
Gary Sick who served in the Carter White House during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, warns comments like those from President Bush as well as from Iranian exiles beamed back to Iran on Los Angeles-based satellite television stations could lead to a backlash and give democracy supporters false hope the United States might come to their rescue if there is a government crackdown.
"I think it is dangerous for the United States to basically leave the impression that we are willing to come in and solve their problems for them," he said. "If things really go sour and people begin to be attacked, put in jail, the reform movement dismantled, which is a possible outcome of things like this, and they say "where is the U.S.?" I think the United States and the people in Los Angeles are not really prepared to intervene in any significant way."
Iran is bordered by two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, whose regimes have both been toppled by American forces. The Bush administration has not threatened force against the Tehran government, which it accuses of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism. But it is voicing moral support for the country's pro-democratic reformers who an administration spokesman says are asking nothing more than to join the modern world.